It May Have Cost Thousands of Lives

English: Inside the Ross Rifle Factory, Quebec...
Inside the Ross Rifle Factory, Quebec City, ca. 1900-1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Lee-Enfield rifle, No.4
Lee-Enfield rifle, No.4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the greatest controversies in Canada was brought about by national pride, and may have cost thousands of lives.  It was over the Ross rifle, used until August 1916 by Canadian troops in World War I.

The problem began several years before the war.  The government tried to order British Lee-Enfield rifles for the Canadian forces, but Britain had priority on them, and would not release the quantity required.  In 1901 tests were begun on a rifle designed by Sir Charles Ross and continued until after the beginning of war in 1914.  It became a matter of pride that Canadians would have rifles so good that Britain would come begging for them.

The Ross rifle compared well with the Lee-Enfield in target shooting but jammed when it became hot.  It was redesigned and special Canadian ammunition was made for it but it still jammed.  Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia, was a keen amateur marksman, and the lightweight Ross rifle appealed to him.  He did not seem to see its faults, and Ross rifles were issued to Canadian soldiers fighting in World War I.   They cost up to $18 each, at least 25 per cent more than Lee-Enfields, and by this time had been altered so much that they were seven inches longer and a pound heavier than the British rifle.

The Canadian soldiers themselves got rid of the Ross rifle.  During the battle of Ypres, nearly 1,500 threw them away and picked up Lee-Enfields lying beside dead British troops.  Their own rifles had jammed in battle as tests had always shown they would.

British General Alderson made repeated representations to Sir Sam Hughes about the loss of confidence in the Ross rifle.  Sir Sam did nothing.  Finally, in desperation, General Alderson wrote to the Governor-General, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught.

The Ottawa Citizen received permission to print this letter which appeared on the front page of the Citizen, May 16, 1916.  It produced the desired reaction: Sir Robert Borden cabled Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, asking him to have a decisive test made.

On May 28, 1916, Haig advised the Canadian Government to abandon the Ross rifle “without delay,” and his recommendation was accepted.

If you would like to read some more about this, I would suggest National Library of New Zealand for a newspaper article; then the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum.